What’s Going on with Cambridge Analytica?

If you’ve paid attention in the news this week, you may have heard the name “Cambridge Analytica” tossed around or something about a “Facebook data breach.” At a glance, it may be hard to tell what these events are all about and how they relate to you. The purpose of this article is to clarify those points and to elucidate what personal information one puts on the internet when using Facebook. As well, we will look at what you can do as a user to protect your data.

The company at the heart of this Facebook data scandal is Cambridge Analytica: a private data analytics firm based in Cambridge, UK, specializing in strategic advertising for elections. They have worked on LEAVE.EU (a pro-Brexit election campaign), as well as Ted Cruz’s and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaigns. Cambridge Analytica uses “psychographic analysis” to predict and target the kind of people who are most likely to respond to their advertisements. “Psychographic analysis”, simply put, is gathering data on individuals’ psychological profiles and using it to develop and target ads. They get their psychological data from online surveys that determine personality traits of individuals. They compare this personality data with data from survey-takers’ Facebook profiles, and extrapolate the correlations between personality traits and more readily accessible info (likes, friends, age group) onto Facebook users who have not even taken the survey. According to CEO Alexander Nix, “Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual […] So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.”. This wealth of data under their belts is extremely powerful in their business, because they know exactly what kind of people could be swayed by a political ad. By affecting individuals across the US, they can sway whole elections.

Gathering data on individuals who have not waived away their information may sound shady, and in fact it breaks Facebook’s terms and conditions. Facebook allows its users’ data to be collected for academic purposes, but prohibits the sale of that data to “any ad network, data broker or other advertising or monetization-related service.” Cambridge Analytica bought their data from Global Science Research, a private business analytics research company. The data in question was collected by a personality survey (a Facebook app called “thisisyourdigitallife”, a quiz that appears similar to the silly quizzes one often sees while browsing Facebook). This app, with its special academic privileges, was able to harvest data not just from the user who took the personality quiz, but from all the quiz-taker’s friends as well. This was entirely legal under Facebook’s terms and conditions, and was not a “breach” at all. Survey-takers consented before taking it, but their friends were never notified about their data being used. Facebook took down thisisyourdigitallife in 2015 and requested Cambridge Analytica delete the data, however ex-Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie says, “literally all I had to do was tick a box and sign it and send it back, and that was it. Facebook made zero effort to get the data back.”

This chain of events makes it clear that data analytics companies (as well as malicious hackers) are not above breaking rules to harvest your personal information, and Facebook alone will not protect it. In order to know how your data is being used, you must be conscious of who has access to it.

What kind of data does Facebook have?

If you go onto your Facebook settings, there will be an option to download a copy of your data. My file is about 600 MB, and contains all my messages, photos, and videos, as well as my friends list, advertisement data, all the events I’ve ever been invited to, phone numbers of contacts, posts, likes, even my facial recognition data! What is super important in the realm of targeted advertisement (though not the only info people are interested in) are the ad data, friends list, and likes. The “Ads Topics” section, a huge list of topics I may be interested in that
determines what kind of ads I see regularly, has my character pinned down.Though some of these are admittedly absurd, (Organism? Mason, Ohio? Carrot?) knowing I’m interested in computer science, cooperative businesses, Brian Wilson, UMass, LGBT issues, plus the knowledge that I’m from Connecticut and friends with mostly young adults says a lot about my character even without “psychographic analysis”—so imagine what kind of in-depth record they have of me up at Cambridge Analytica! I implore you, if interested, to download this archive yourself and see what kind of person the ad-brokers of Facebook think you are.

Is there a way to protect my data on Facebook?

What’s out there is out there, and from the Cambridge Analytica episode we know third-party companies may not delete data they’ve already harvested, and Facebook isn’t particularly interested in getting it back, so even being on Facebook could be considered a risk by some. However, it is relatively easy to remove applications that have access to your information, and that is a great way to get started protecting your data from shady data harvesters. These applications are anything that requires you to sign in with Facebook. This can mean other social media networks that link with Facebook (like Spotify, Soundcloud, or Tinder), or Facebook hosted applications (things like Truth Game, What You Would Look Like As The Other Gender, or Which Meme Are You?). In Facebook’s settings you can view and remove applications that seem a little shady.

You can do so by visiting this link, or by going into settings, then going into Apps.

After that you will see a screen like this, and you can view and remove apps from there.

However, according to Facebook, “Apps you install may retain your info after you remove them from Facebook.” They recommend to “Contact the app developer to remove this info”. There is a lot to learn from the events surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica this month, and one lesson is to be wary of who you allow to access your personal information.